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Is Education Reform Losing Something in the Translation?

After I graduated from college, I took the summer off and back- packed through Europe because I figured that it might be the last time I could travel without time constraints (Of course, I was right about this).  Not being able to speak the native languages provided some funny and not-so- funny incidents. In any case, I am sure most of you have been in a situation where the discussion is hampered by the two people not speaking the same language. It can be frustrating at times and shows how simple things can become so complicated.

Last week I described an education reform program I attended,  Rethinking Education Governance for the Twenty-First Century, which was sponsored by the Fordham Institute.  The presenters were for the most part academics with impressive credentials. For those who have been part of public education for a while, some of these concepts may just turn your world upside down. That is because they are seriously considering “rethinking” education, not just tweaking it.

Most of you know that the commissioner and governor both want to change teacher tenure and teacher evaluations, as well as provide more charter school opportunities for parents. What was fascinating about the program at the Fordham Institute was the thrust of the discussion: that the next reform we need to consider involves changing how school districts are governed. By that they mean changing the role of the school board member and the superintendent. The belief is that the state (or another single entity, such as a city) should have the primary authority over the school system and that building principals are given broad authority and also held accountable for academic achievement.

Why give the state the primary authority?  The belief is that we have a system with too many governing entities, both formal (local boards, state education departments and the federal government) and informal (such as teacher unions) that influence public education and make it hard to reform the system. The lines of responsibility are not clear, so it is hard to hold any one entity accountable.

If state control is not feasible, then mayoral-controlled (notice I used the word controlled not appointed there is a difference) school districts are another school improvement option that seems to resonate with the Fordham program speakers. Once again, the concept involves concentrating authority in a single entity to avoid school reform roadblocks.

While I believe that tenure reform and reforming the way we evaluate teachers is needed and would help students in all districts, I am not convinced that changing our governance structure will yield any benefits.

There major hurdles to shifting authority from local district to the state in New Jersey. For one thing: can you change the governance structure without changing the funding system?  In New Jersey, in 2009-2010, the local property tax levy accounted for 62.1  percent of public school funding and state aid made up 34.7 percent of public school revenue that same year.  (Source: Rankings & Estimates: Rankings of the States 2010, National Education Association 2010)  Why should the state have the authority when the local citizens are the primary funders of education?  Don’t they deserve a say too?  In the community in which I live, the local property taxpayers fund almost 90 percent of the cost of education while the state government pays 7 percent and the federal government 1 percent. No disrespect to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or Acting Commissioner Cerf, but their influence in the public education in my community far outweighs the financial support they provide.  One of the key presenters suggested that the states pick up most of the tab for public education and I thought to myself “That ain’t going to happen in New Jersey!  Let’s discuss policy choices that are at least feasible.”

As for mayoral-controlled boards, one of the presenters mentioned that mayoral controlled districts don’t always reap great results because the mayors sometimes lose elections and some mayors are better than others.  This seems so obvious to me:  I have known many mayors over my life and I am not sure any really had an education focus.

My other issue with these proposals is that I do favor a system of governance that has checks and balances and I do not particularly like systems that give the authority to one person or entity.

In New Jersey, most of our districts have the same governance structure.  They have a school board and a superintendent who lead the district.  There are districts located a few miles apart  with very different levels of achievement:  one district has outstanding academic results, while the other  is struggling mightily. If their governance is the same, then maybe governance is not the issue, because in the vast majority of districts, the governance system is yielding great results. When we look at these two districts, usually a dramatic difference rests with the economic conditions; while we can never use that as an excuse for low achievement or an obstacle to well-thought-out education reforms, it remains a factor in school performance that must be addressed.  So, maybe governance is not the problem at all.

In any case, what we need to be aware of is that these discussions are influencing state political leaders.  They may be speaking a ‘different language’ than most of us in the education community, but not much is being lost in the translation.

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3 Responses to “Is Education Reform Losing Something in the Translation?”

  1. Bethany Summers Says:

    Hi Ray,
    One of my biggest problems with giving the state (or township) more control of the schools is that the elected BOE (elected by the local people footing the school budget) is given less and less authority. I realize the mayors are elected, too, but not with a primary interest in education. I have the same issue with the Executive County Superintendent (an appointed position). We propose the budget and he can take out the red pen and do whatever he wants. We need to maintain CE, get fingerprinted and for what? I fear that school boards will go the way of the dinosaurs or maybe the way of the Queen of England- waving to the crowds but not making any real decisions.
    BTW- I back-packed through Europe, too, after my first year of vet school. Awesome experience! A smile and a “please” and “thank you” in the local language gets you a long way :)

  2. Lucy D. Walker Says:

    Two Districts borders touching. The thing that makes them different is ignorance of governance and corruption.

  3. Ray Pinney Says:

    Bethany,

    Your fears are shared by many.

    BTW – You are right about the smile and thank you!

    Ray

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